Jim May sounds both proud and a little melancholy when he reflects on the success that stevia and its extracts have had in the U.S. in the past year.
Recalling the first stevia samples he brought to the U.S. in 1982, "I had found something good for the human body, not just a sweetener," says the founder and CEO of Wisdom Natural Brands (www.wisdomnaturalbrands.com), Gilbert, Ariz., who also lays claim to the title "father of stevia."
"I also found something that could help the farmers of South America and maybe stem the drug trade," he told us in a recent interview. "But now the overwhelming majority of other companies' stevia comes from China, not South America."
Stevia is the little bush with big sweetening power. One of its extracts, rebaudioside-A (reb-A) was approved for use as a sweetener by the FDA in December 2008.
The plant's sweetening powers were first discovered by Western scientists in Paraguay in 1899, although it already had been used as an herb and sweetener for generations. As it became an accepted non-nutritive sweetener in other parts of the world, it came to be cultivated in China and other parts of Southeast Asia, forming the bulk of today's supply.
But May learned of the herb from Peace Corps workers who had been in Paraguay. Twelve years after bringing those first samples to the U.S., in 1994 he founded Wisdom Natural Brands and launched SweetLeaf as both an ingredient in some of his company's herbal teas and as a sweetener in its own tea bag. His early versions were blended with inulin, because he liked the synergy with the natural prebiotic and soluble fiber.
"In addition to being good for the body, I thought stevia could be good for the farmers of South America," May says. "They could make as big a profit on stevia as they could growing marijuana or even coca. This could have stemmed the drug trade." Somehow, he says, the cultivation of stevia went to the Far East, although all of Wisdom's stevia still comes from South America.
"We take four glycosides from the leaf, not just reb-A," he says, claiming there are healthful ingredients in the other components that other companies have discarded. "And we're the only company in the world that developed an extraction method using only purified water and ultrafiltration, not chemical processing."
He laments so much focus now on stevia as a sweetener only, and notes that the two biggest tabletop sweeteners – Cargill's Truvia and Merisant's PureVia – both add erythritol and other ingredients. "There's very little stevia or even reb-A in those products," he claims.
He also claims a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) affirmation – with the help of GRAS Associates – long before the December 2008 FDA non-objection letters to Cargill and Merisant.
But he does appreciate the frenzy of interest whipped up by those FDA approvals and the subsequent development by the giants. Wisdom is growing, too, with many clients in the soft drinks business. To meet the growing demand, Wisdom is expanding its capacity by four times with a new extraction facility in Chile, expected to come on line in three or four months. "And we'll probably double it again in the not-too-distant future," he says, "although that depends on supply. I'll only take a certain type of stevia plant and only from South America."